Interview with Ko Ko Thett

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Rangoon, the capital of Burma, in Autumn of 2005. Picture: tv

Happening: Discussion about Burma
Time: Thursday August 7th, 2008 at 4pm
Place: Cafe Owen, Kauppakeskus Galleria, Kuningattarenkatu 11, Loviisa
Tickets: Free Entry
Language: English

Q. Could you tell us about your childhood?

I was born in Rangoon (Yangon) in the early 1970s. My father was a technician from a military establishment. I have one younger sister but I was told that my elder sister died in infancy. Perhaps due to that fact, plus being a boy, I had been pampered like a prince. Just like most other infants in Burma, I had been through some critical illnesses during my childhood. Obviously I had survived. My parents still hold that I am a very venerable bellybutton of the universe.

Q. When and why did you leave Burma?

I do not wish to go too deep into my personal life. But I can put my life into perspective. Let me identify general life patterns of Burmese refugees first. Then I can place myself into one of the categories. There are generally three patterns:

1) happy childhood-happy campus life-activism-flight from the country before or after the military coup in September 1988 – years of hardship in the jungle as a student rebel and/or arrest and years of torment and toil in a Burmese prison – release-flight from the country-years of sojourn in a refugee camp in Thailand – resettlement in a Western country

2) happy childhood-happy campus life-activism-arrest-detention and/or imprisonment-release-flight from the country-more activism in exile-sojourn in a refugee camp in Thailand-resettlement in a Western country

3) poor but happy childhood in the ethnic areas where fighting between government troops and ethic insurgents are common – village burned down – forced labour or forced relocation or other hardships and/or years of hardship in the Burmese jungle as an ethnic rebel, flight to a Burmese refugee camp at Thailand-Burma border – years of stay in a refugee camp (up to 20 years in some cases) – resettlement in a Western country

Type 1 and 2 are typical stories of majority Burman refugees who had had higher education inside Burma. Type 3 is a typical life trajectory of ethnic refugees in rural or remote areas close to Burma’s neighbouring countries. I learned these patterns when I was working with Jesuit Refugee Service-Burma Project in Bangkok from 1997 to 2000. During that rewarding job, I had a chance to listen to hundreds of traumatic stories of the Burmese refugees so that I could assess their needs. The different stories they told me could be summed up as above. Details are much more varied and horrid. I could place myself in Type 2.

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Picture: tv

Q. How was the life in refugee camp?

Life in a Burmese refugee camp is not as hard physically as popular Western imagination would have it. It’s not like a prison where you are under guard all the time. In prison your life rotates around a certain routine. A Burmese refugee camp looks like an enormous fenced village. Everything but productive activities which are vital for human existence is available there. People in refugee camps are cared for and fed by humanitarian organizations. They survive on hope that they could go out of the camp to a free world some day.

Imagine staying in confined refugee came for many years without any assurance of resettlement; you get sick from boredom; then you might try out some drugs easily available in the camp; then you get depressed… I saw a young man who stabbed himself to death out of boredom a few weeks before his departure for the resettlement in the US. He hoisted a dagger against a tree and pushed his throat against it. This is why humanitarian organizations have been trying to engage refugees in income-generation, vocational training or other educational activities. Of course there are also many refugees who managed to make the best out of their sojourns in the refugee camp.

Q. How did you end up to Finland?

I applied for resettlement in Australia. But the process was taking too long; it would take three years, I heard. So I decided to come to Finland where the process of immigration and resettlement took less than three months – thanks to efficient Finnish bureaucracy.

Q. What should “the West” do to support Burmese democracy movement?

This is my favourite question so far. But the answer will take a book. In brief, I would say that the West should learn more about Burma. As a Burmese I find Western media portrayal of my country and its democratic struggle shallow and facile. I want the West to be aware that Burma is not just about the seemingly unending struggle between an evil military regime and its do-gooder detractors, it’s not just about feel-good democracy campaigns, it’s not just one of the last frontiers for Western tourists, it’s not a test tube for foreign policy formulation of former colonial Western countries, it’s not just about exotic girls described by Kipling, Orwell and the like, it’s not going to be a Southeast Asian Iraq. Just like all other countries in the world, it’s a dynamic and organic entity with its diverse cultures and thousands of years of proud histories. Your approach to Burma may differ, depending on your interpretation of such histories. Yet you can do better for that unfortunate little country if you have better understanding of its cultures and its histories.

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